I had been looking forward to eating at the new Wheeler's for months. The old Wheeler's was an established fish restaurant, beloved by many, and in latter days a chain, which sadly, died a slow death after it decided to serve up pre-cooked dishes, manufactured in a warehouse somewhere, delivered by white van and then re-heated-in the restaurant. Marco Pierre White launched the new brand in 2009 in a joint enterprise with Sir Rocco Forte of hotel fame. The new Wheeler's incidentally, is on the site of the old Madame Prunier's fish restaurant in St James's Street.
Now I happen to have my golden Fauntleroy locks shorn next door at a vast expense, and over the last year or so, had often sauntered past Marco Pierre White's newish restaurant. It looks dreadfully smart from the outside, and dreadfully expensive. It turned out that I was to be wrong on the first count, and utterly correct on the second.
A few weeks ago, Mrs Aitch very kindly decided to treat me to dinner for my birthday. We decided to head for Wheeler's. The front of the restaurant looks promising- a tiled, fin de siècle style oyster restaurant of the old school, albeit empty; though our faces were to fall when we led into the main restaurant: a cavernous hanger, painted in a shiny red gloss (worthy of a tart's boudoir or a 70's Strikes 1926 burger joint), uncomfortable black lacquered cane seated cafe chairs, and decorated with semi-pornographic Bob Carlos Clarke photographs, of gigantious proportion. Look, heavens, I'm no prude, but there's a time and a place for everything, and I have to admit that I found the prints utterly distracting. There I was supposed to be looking at the lovely Mrs Aitch, but instead, found my eyes drifting towards nubile derrières, clad in oh-so kinky, skin-tight shiny black rubber.
I suppose the two big celebrity chefs of recent years have been Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay. Rock n' Roll Aristocracy versus Footballer's Wives. Of the two styles, I infinitely prefer the former: all Wiltshire long barrows, covert coats with velvet collars and Bristol motor cars. And St James's is very much my sort of place. There's the endlessly fascinating London Library, the understated Budd of Piccadilly Arcade (where you can buy those knitted silk Mad Men ties), Christie's in King Street, that slightly naff bronze statue of Beau Brummell in Jermyn Street, the impeccable New & Lingwood, and probably the greatest bookshop in London (quite possibly in the world), Hatchards, where, under the addiction of some form of bibliomaniacal crack-cocaine, I have spent my inheritance over the last twenty years.
The potted brown shrimps were good. Mrs A though her smoked eel a trifle bland, and her Halibut Provencal "passionless" (her words). My halibut was reasonably good, though a bit on the dry side. The caulifower cheese was good, and the braised red cabbage, excellent. We orded a Gavi de Gavi and were told by the sommalier that it wasn't cold enough, and that they wouldn't recommend it. I found this slightly annoying. Why have a wine on the list, if you are incapable of selling it? Am I being unfair? But service was fine, and the sommalier was charming- a substitute Italian white was conjured up immediately at the same price.
The restaurant was more or less empty apart from an odd looking clientele. To our left, a silver-haired military type wearing a regimental tie entertained a svelte gentleman with a David Niven moustache (possibly Nigerean?). They moved tables to be out of ear-shot. Were they planning a parachute drop on the former Nyasaland? Otherwise, there were some nonegarian Teutons with bulbous girths, reminiscent of Baron Bombast in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. And a few goofy-looking American tourists. Swinging London it wasn't.
It was all at terrific shame. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't especially good, and for the money Scott's or J. Sheekey would have been a better choice. And Mein Gott, Wheeler's was expensive. Jaw-droppingly expensive. It came to £162 for the two of us. This didn't include a pudding, and we stuck to the less expensive items on the menu. Dressed Cornish Crab with sauce mayonnaise cost £15.50, Wheeler's Classic Fish Pie is £15.50, and Terrine of Foie Gras is £14.50. Mrs Aitch found it all a bit formulaic, and I think she is right: I'm not entirely convinced that Marco has had much to do with the restaurant, apart from lending his name to the enterprise and dropping by to have a look now and again. Four and a half out of Ten. Sorry.
Wheeler's of St James's, 72-73 St James's Street, London SW1A 1PH (020 7836 651)